Education, education, education! — July 3, 2012

Education, education, education!

*Warning, this is purely a theoretical argument*

The education system in the UK is clearly not perfect. The evidence of this is abundantly clear, we have over 1m young people unemployed, many with no or little qualifications or real skills for the working world. So how do we change this?

One radical idea would be to overhaul how we place students in classes. Currently classes are essentially determined by what year you were born in. Anybody born between September 2002 to July 2003 are placed in a Year group. For some reason, it has only just dawned on me how bizarre this notion is. Here’s what Shadow Secretary for Education, Stephen Twigg said on the matter earlier this year:

“On a conceptual level, many schools are still organised like factories. The workers down tools when they hear the bell ring, and are strictly separated into production lines, focused on building the constituent parts of knowledge, maths, science etc. At the same time, students are rigidly separated. Taught in batches, not by ability or interest, but by their own date of manufacture.”

“Taught in batches” seems to ring very true. Why do we teach people based on their age? In what part of the working world are people separated by age, not ability?

It is high time that we change this structure and begin classing people by ability. In my own education I was moved into “Year 6” classes when I was in “Year 4” to help keep me interested, and it worked, so why doesn’t every school do it?

Classes based on ability would help everybody. More intelligent students could be placed in classes with students on their intellectual level and pushed further than they are now, without the distractions of students who either a) don’t want to be there b) don’t understand the topics, and therefore act as a distraction. This could really help our brightest students and stop their progress from being stunted which occurs far too often in our current system.

It also works towards helping students who are “less intelligent.” They are no longer in classes with students who find subjects easy, which can be demoralising for students (I’m sure everybody can understand that feeling, when you are struggling and the person next to you finds the task a breeze.) They would also be given more attention by teachers who can help them progress. “Less intelligent” students also suffer from distractions from other students, I admit that when I was in school I was a distraction for many, when I finished work I’d mess around, because I didn’t have anything else to do. We need to keep students of all abilities fully engaged with education.

The only drawback would be the social side of things, which is why I would suggest that this idea would be for secondary schools only. There should be no stigma in being in higher/lower classes, it is a harsh reality, that some students are brighter than others. That doesn’t mean they are better than other students. Not everybody can get an A*, but everybody should be able to aspire to achieve the best they can.

It would also be tailored for individual subjects, so just because a student is good at Maths, doesn’t mean they should be placed in higher classes in English.

We already have “sets” within Year groups, and I believe it is high time to open the education system up. Classes by ability, not age.

Pupil Premium & Meritocracy — May 30, 2012

Pupil Premium & Meritocracy

As a new member of the Liberal Democrats, I thought it was about time that I came out in a real defence of one of their policies. One of my favourite policies is the Pupil Premium. The policy pledges £7bn towards giving the poorest children a better start in life.

Education is becoming a bit of a bug-bear of mine at the minute, ironically as I come to an end of mine. There is still a worryingly low number of “poor” students who end up going to university. Now I’m not advocating that all students should go to university, far from it, but it is shocking that in a developed a country such as the UK that we suffer from such terrible social mobility. The money is given directly to schools and they are not directed specifically on how to spend it, but of course is aimed at helping the poorest students. For more click here.

So why is the Pupil Premium a good idea? Well, its a perfect application of John Rawls’ difference principle. Which of course, makes it brilliant. It also negates the issue of meritocracy.

“Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions of offices open to all.” Rawls places a lexical priority on (b), ensuring that this part must always come first for the principle to be upheld. Point (b) offers an equality of opportunity.”

The Pupil Premium encourages an equal opportunity for all. It helps those from disadvantaged backgrounds compete with their wealthier counterparts. Why is this a problem for the government? Surely university should be based on merit, and therefore we should allow education to be solely based on meritocracy? Er – nope!

Rawls on meritocracy

Rawls’ argument starts at the “luck” of birth. The luck of birth is the idea that people have no moral claim over the attributes they are born with. Rawls wanted to nullify these effects and allow for equal opportunities. The rhetoric of equal opportunity still isn’t good enough for John Rawls; whilst it negates the issue of the randomness of birth it still doesn’t mean we are equal. Whilst everybody is in the ‘race’ for the job/university place, they aren’t starting at the same point.

The solution to this would be to ensure a ‘fair’ starting point for individuals. The Pupil Premium is part of a ‘fair equality of opportunities’ scheme, the policy increases spending per pupil for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Rawls would remain unsatisfied with this solution. This may remove some of the fundamental socio-economic restrictions “but it still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents.”

Rawls argues that a meritocracy in its purest form is flawed. It all depends on what an individual can claim credit for, the luck of birth plays too much of a role in life to abide by a meritocracy. Effort doesn’t really matter when discussing meritocracy and this is unjust. A crude example shows the problems of not rewarding effort, a small man could build a house in three days and try harder than a man who can build a house in one day, who would you reward the most? The main principle behind meritocracy is contribution and ultimately we aren’t totally in control of how much we can contribute.

Are we entitled to claim that our “assets” belong to us?

“Rawls’ response is to invoke the distinction between the self and its possession in the strongest version of that distinction, and so to claim that, strictly speaking, there is nothing that ‘I’, qua pure subject to possession, have – nothing that is attached, rather than related, to me – nothing at least in the strong, constitutive sense of possession necessary to a desert base.”

Rawls argues that all things considered, we don’t “own ourselves”, we can defend our rights as declared in the first principle but we do not own our abilities and talents. “No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favourable starting place.” Rawls argues that our starting point is arbitrary, but what we should seek are fair institutions to mitigate the arbitrariness of birth.

“The natural distribution [of abilities and talents] is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.”

Rawls continues to further strengthen his argument. Even if we did have self-ownership and we value effort and (to some extent) contribution, we have no control over the market in which we sell our attributes and talents. For example, The Beatles sold millions of records in the 1960/70s, but would they do the same in 2012? We have no control over the condition of the market, which further adds to the moral arbitration and limits what we can claim to morally deserve. We are entitled to reap the rewards of a society which values or attributes, but we are not morally deserving of them, and to claim otherwise is foolhardy.